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Why higher winter temperatures are affecting the logging industry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A warm winter in the Northeast is making it harder for loggers to do their jobs. Here's Henry Epp from our member station Vermont Public Radio.

HENRY EPP, BYLINE: Brian Lafoe is operating a machine called a forwarder in a patch of woods in East Burke, a small town in northeastern Vermont. He maneuvers a mechanized arm to pick up logs that his son-in-law felled, split and piled along a road they cut through the forest. The heavy machinery has left ruts in the ground. Usually that's not an issue at this time of year.

BRIAN LAFOE: In the wintertime, you got this wet ground. The ground gets froze up. Our machines go over it good. We don't do no damage.

EPP: But on this sunny January morning, the temperature is starting to rise above freezing. And that means Lafoe can't run the forwarder much longer or else he'll start to damage the soil. Winter is a crucial season for loggers like Lafoe. Typically, the frozen ground allows them to access sensitive wooded areas like this nearly every day. But this year, temperatures surged into the 50s in early January, and there's mud and ice where there should be deep snow.

LAFOE: You shouldn't be able to see this ground. We should have snow right now. Life should be good. It should be zero degrees. We should be going.

EPP: Instead, this job has taken Lafoe about two weeks longer than normal, and he'll have to do more work in the summer to repair the rutted logging trails. All told, he guesses the weather will increase his costs by about 17%. Luckily, he paid off all his equipment, like the forwarder, years ago.

LAFOE: I guess a good way to put it - if I didn't own all this stuff, I probably wouldn't be doing it right now. I'd be retired.

DAVID SENIO: But I think this is shades of things to come.

EPP: This is David Senio, the forester working with Brian Lafoe on this project. With climate change, winters are becoming shorter and more unpredictable in Vermont. Cutting down trees which store carbon could be adding to that climate impact. But Senio argues there's also a climate-positive effect of logging. Responsibly managing forests can make them healthier in the long run. But warming winters limit how often loggers can do that work.

SENIO: How do you make more productive days in a year? You don't.

EPP: And, Senio says, all of Vermont's $1.4 billion forest products industry is impacted by the changing climate - not just loggers, but sawmill operators, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE SAWING)

EPP: Goodridge Lumber in Albany, Vt., relies on loggers like Brian Lafoe for the wood that's running through their sawmill. Workers feed white cedar logs along a spinning saw blade, cutting them into posts and boards. But because loggers haven't been able to harvest as much this year, owner Colleen Goodridge says her sawmill's store of fresh logs is running low.

COLLEEN GOODRIDGE: This year, we don't have that extra inventory that we had last year. So we are hoping that, you know, we have a strong next few weeks.

EPP: Sales are good right now, Goodridge says, but it's not clear how long that will last. She's thinking of ways to diversify her business, like finding markets for lower-quality wood. Still, she's trying to be optimistic about the rest of the season.

GOODRIDGE: I'm hopeful. And, you know, we've had cold weather in April. We've had Aprils that hung on and hung on and hung on. So we just don't know.

EPP: Goodridge has been in the lumber business for 49 years. Her sons are now co-owners. But she's worried about the future of this industry in Vermont. High costs and the unpredictability of a changing climate make it a tough business for young people to enter.

GOODRIDGE: They say to live is to experience change. Well, you know, I guess we're living.

EPP: Goodridge just hopes the logging industry can adapt to all this change.

For NPR News, I'm Henry Epp in northern Vermont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Henry Epp